It's become a trailer cliché to say a movie is “from visionary director” so-and-so. Robert Eggers truly deserves the designation. His first two films, The Witch and The Lighthouse, had such original, fully-realized visions that watching them was like becoming engulfed in a beautiful nightmare. (They're both horror movies, for those who are unfamiliar.) Eggers' latest, The Northman, is no different, except that he had a reported budget of $70 million this time. Money has nothing to do with quality, except that the director puts every penny up on the screen, giving us a mind-blowingly grand spectacle.
Alexander Skarsgård plays Amleth, a Viking prince who, as a child, saw uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang) murder his father, Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke). Even worse, Fjölnir forced mother Gudrún (Nicole Kidman) to marry him. Amleth intends to make good on his vow to seek vengeance. In order to do that, he has to pose as a slave and make a long journey to the village in Iceland where his uncle now lives. He becomes close to a female slave, Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), he meets on the ship. Then he has to obtain a magical sword and, later, take part in a violent sporting event. Once he finally finds himself in the presence of Fjölnir, he learns some shocking truths about his family.
The Northman is not a typical Viking film. Eggers tosses in several scenes of fantasy. The quest for the sword, for instance, requires Amleth to fight a member of the undead. Another scene has him visiting a seeress (played by singer Björk) who makes predictions about how he will kill his uncle. Sequences like these add a layer of mystique to the story. Without them, the picture might feel like a standard-issue revenge tale, albeit a well-executed one. Eggers shoots the scenes in a creative way. At times, the camera is pointed at Amleth. When it pans away to something else, the character is already there. Again, it creates a hypnotic vibe that draws you in.
What most distinguishes the film is that it's intentionally designed to be an experience. From the majestic locations, to the atmospheric cinematography, to the elaborate sets, The Northman plunges viewers into this world. Eggers utilizes large groups of extras and lengthy camera moves skillfully. One unbroken shot, for example, moves through a village, showing us what's happening on one end, then gliding over to the other end. The coordination of actors and stunt people in that shot is astonishing. Sound is important too. Ominous cawing of crows, whipping wind, clanging swords, and other noises are cranked up, booming from the theater speakers to completely surround you. Visually and aurally, the film is conceived to stimulate your senses to the max.
Performances are strong all the way around. Because Viking accents are unusual onscreen, it can be a little disconcerting to hear them coming out of the mouths of the actors, and not everyone sounds exactly alike in that regard. Once you get past that, it becomes easier to see how Eggers has crafted each character to be one piece of the same puzzle. There is purposefully little shading to them because they are meant to exemplify a particular trait. Amleth is single-mindedly vengeful, Fjölnir is ruthless, etc. Heightening every person's primary quality gives them a larger-than-life feel that suits the mood Eggers is aiming for.
The Northman is packed with splendor. Eggers has a unique conception for the film, and he's guided his actors and technical team to bring it to the screen with extreme vividness. The bottom line is that you watch most movies, but with this one, you walk away feeling as though you've been on an odyssey right alongside Amleth. That feeling is glorious.
out of four
The Northman is rated R for strong bloody violence, some sexual content and nudity. The running time is 2 hours and 16 minutes.